Wednesday will be marked as one of the lower points in the history of the Syracuse men's basketball program, and rightfully so, as they self-imposed a postseason ban for the 2015 season as a result of an NCAA investigation. This will be the first time the Orange will miss the postseason since an NCAA imposed ban in 1993.
Right now, we don't know what else will come from the University and the mighty fist of Mark Emmert and the NCAA, but it is fair to assume that the Orange made this decision in compliance with the NCAA to lesser their future punishment for what seems to be significant violations. They will be unable to participate in the ACC Tournament, NCAA Tournament or the NIT this coming March.
While this is very sad news for everybody involved in the program and the Orange faithful, this looks to be the best case scenario for the program going forward.
The ban comes in a season where the Orange are 15-7 and struggling through the weaker half of their conference schedule. Five of their final nine games are against teams currently ranked in the top 10, which held serious postseason implications. Chances at success in the ACC Tournament looked minimal, as did their chances to make the field of 68 anyway. Now, none of these postseason scenarios matter.
Many college basketball fans throughout the Twittersphere were quick to mention these current struggles, citing the ban as some sort of convenience for Syracuse. Jim Boeheim is a very competitive guy, that is no secret. For almost 40 years Syracuse fans have seen him strolling the sideline with the same straight face, his game face, and we all know that face means he is thinking about winning. I don't think there was ever a point in his career that he thought,"Well since we are committing violations, let's just make 2014-15 a bad team and take it out on them!" No major program ever wants to see this happen, no matter what the current state of their team is.
Is this a convenience for senior leader Rakeem Christmas? The guy who has probably worked tirelessly to improve his game for his final year and has seen it pay off. He has seen his usage percentage double this season compared to last and his 402 points scored this season leave him just 102 points shy of the 504 he had scored in his ENTIRE career (per Sports-Reference). A chance at fulfilling his dream of a national title and a tournament run to help his draft stock is not something he would choose to pass on if he did not have too. Along with his talents, this team could very well have had Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant back for their sophomore and junior seasons respectively, and in any other scenario than winning their first 25 games last year they very well could have stayed. It is more likely that those guys were a part of this years plan, not a ban from potential conference and national glory.
Fans should not be too quick to judge, this team was ranked entering the year and had fairly strong expectations. The Orange just happened to make a decision that is best for the future of their program, and that is what any other school would do.
This is not the first time a major athletic program has self-imposed a postseason ban. For example, the Miami Hurricanes football program self-imposed two postseason bans in the 2011 and 2012 seasons while awaiting the results of a multi-year investigation conducted by the NCAA pertaining to a former booster's relationship with the school and its student-athletes. By the time the NCAA completed their investigation, the Hurricanes' self-imposed sanctions limited their penalty. Syracuse decided to act fast because they probably didn't want to sit around and wait for the long and obnoxious process to complete. With the ban and other potential self-imposed sanctions, such as loss of scholarships and subtracting days coaches can be on the recruiting trail, the Orange will look to move on from this as quick as possible.
As the season went on and we noticed that this team was not doing too well, and considering the Orange had already met with the NCAA Committee of Infractions in late October, I started to develop a theory. Although the Orange came into the season with dreams of a conference and national title, Boeheim and his staff may have thought about how this team has a much lower ceiling than teams of the past and decided to do, for lack of a better phrase, a college version of tanking. Obviously I don't think they are losing or will lose intentionally, but winning this season could have been placed behind development and maintenance of talent for the future.
This is all skepticism on my part, if you want to know the truth then you would have to talk to Boeheim himself, but this idea makes sense for a multitude of reasons, the most important being the potential of the 2015-16 squad. The Orange expect to lose only one scholarship player (Christmas), and gain four ESPN Top 100 recruits in the class of 2015, with the potential to add one more in the Rochester, N.Y. stud Thomas Bryant or power forward Cheik Diallo. That potential roster is loaded with talent, and will most likely boast more talent than Orange rosters of old:
|Year||Number of ESPN Top 100 Recruits on Roster|
Trevor Cooney (redshirt) and Michael Gbinije (transfer) were with the team in 2011-12 and 2012-13 respectively but did not play, so they were not counted in these numbers. The potential number of top 100 recruits on next year's roster is higher than ever before, including the 2002-03 title team. The minimum of 10 comes from the potential of freshman Chris McCullough leaving early for the NBA, and the maximum 12 comes from the chance he stays and another recruit is added.
It would be tough to miss out on the postseason with a roster like that, and I bet a lot of people within the program know that. Boeheim has never been shy about trying to influence his players to stay in school and comment on their draft stock, and this year with McCullough was no exception. Him knocking his freshman stud's lottery chances could have been a part of his plan to convince him to stay for another year and keep the potential for next season as high as possible.
However, the season-ending ACL injury to McCullough could make him conclude on his own that returning for his sophomore season would be in his best interests without the influence of Boeheim, and hopefully DaJuan Coleman will return healthy as well. With the addition of high school senior big man Moustapha Diagne, the Orange will have some much needed front court depth despite the loss of Christmas. Kaleb Joseph, who has been inconsistent all season, will have a year of experience under his belt and the security blanket of newcomers to the backcourt, Frank Howard and Malachi Richardson, when he goes through growing pains. Cooney will have more scorers around him and a fellow three-point sniper in Tyler Lydon, creating more spacing and better looks for everybody. And that is all without mentioning Gbinije, Tyler Roberson, B.J. Johnson, Ron Patterson and Chinonso Obokoh.
That is an intimidating roster of players that could provide so much depth that even Boeheim would have to take advantage of it. Naturally, the potential for a lot of these players still needs to be realized, but the rest of this season and their long offseason provides them with an ample amount of time to keep growing and learning. This quote from captains Christmas, Gbinije and Cooney sums all of that up:
"We are all tremendously disappointed that we are going to miss out on playing in the postseason based on issues that do not involve us. However, we support our school and this won't change how hard we will continue to work in practice and in games."
This is a great mentality for them to have, especially since the ban is not the fault of any current players. They can finish the season strong, take some chances and try to incorporate new strategies and skills to the court. They have a chance to spoil some of their ACC foes' seasons by giving them some February losses and pick up momentum heading into the offseason. With their talent, and the ban in the rearview mirror, this team will be hungry for success, taking a page out of old rival UConn's book. The Huskies were banned from the postseason in 2012-13, but then made a miraculous run to win their fourth national title the next year. Maybe the Orange can pull off the same magic to earn their second.
I always look back at 2011-12 and think about the suspension of Fab Melo and what could have happened if he was in the lineup for the NCAA Tournament. I didn't want those same thoughts about 2015-16. So far, it looks like that dream is still in tact.